Sitting at a table in a restaurant in the vicinity of Angkor Wat that seems to be the preferred gathering spot for Tuk Tuk drivers, our tour guide, Wasty, gave us the lowdown on what will happen next after our much-needed late lunch break. “Next we will be visiting, Ta Prohm, the famous temple where Angelina Jolie shot the movie, Tomb Raider. You know, every time she comes here, I would be assigned as her children’s nanny”, she said in a heavily accented but fluent Cambodian-English and proceeded to show off her photo with Maddox, Angelina’s first adopted son who’s also a native of Cambodia. We let her bask in that moment of pride and joy. As I sip on my mango shake which has become my favourite drink throughout the trip, I asked Wasty if she gets to meet Brad Pitt. She animatedly answered, “Yes! He came down to see her. He smokes a lot. I don’t like him” which drew spirited laughs and relieves us from the humidity and the intensity we experienced due to the visit to Angkor’s main temple this morning. The extremity of commanding visual paired with Wasty’s eloquent feed of information in the truckloads – it’s all so overwhelming. And we are just halfway done.
Wasty is probably one of the thousands of indigenous Cambodians currently staying and making a living in Siem Reap, the gateway to the ruins of Angkor and the seat of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th to 15th century. Considered to be one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, Cambodia generated around 1.12 billion US dollars in the tourism sector – and more than half of which came from the universally-acclaimed reputation of Siem Reap, not just as a scenic resort town but one that is rich in heritage and culture.
With tourism being regarded as the number one money-making industry, two professions stood out in the hierarchy of things, namely tour guides and Tuk Tuk drivers. In this country, they are respected like any other professionals – even more, if one possesses the ability to do both and came with other unique skills that would give their clients added value for every USD spent. Wasty for example, other than her status as a celebrity nanny to global icons with a penchant for stand-up comedy, speaks four different languages, namely Khmer – her mother tongue, English, French and currently learning Bahasa Malaysia. Maybe she is just trying to amuse us, but at this point, Wasty has us all too wrapped up around her little finger that we would just believe anything that she says.
A good tour guide not only has to be a true blue Angkorphile which ultimately means having the ability to convey hard facts on its history which dates back to the 11th century in an engaging way; but every other information that comes with it, including architecture, symbolism, astronomy, cosmology, spiritual, politics, literature, economy, the arts etc. This is by no means an easy feat because if you happen to book for yourself and your group a dull tour guide, you would find yourself getting all templed out quite instantaneously. Save to say that this hire would make or break your trip.
According to Wasty, who also supervises the Tuk Tuk drivers that took us around the chain of temples surrounding Angkor, she has to attend several training programmes conducted by Cambodia’s Tourism Ministry and Apsara Authority, which manages the Angkor Archaeological Park. “I make it a point to attend all the courses. We are not just tour guides, but unofficial ambassadors of the country who spread knowledge about Khmer culture and the commercial and cultural value of the area. Our role became especially important now as we are expected to help the Apsara Authority to manage tourists in line with the post Covid-19 requirements.
Plus if we are really good and our clients love us, they will write about us in their Tripadvisor or Yelp reviews and give bigger tips. I have a family to support so if I do well, my family will also benefit from it”. I can’t help but feel that while she’s explaining to us the many responsibilities expected out of her, she is indirectly handing out our own To-do list once the guided tour is over. Do they also teach reverse psychology and hypnosis in those classes because it is working like a charm.
The new Siem Reap International Airport is expected to be ready by the end of this year. With this, the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism hopes that Siem Reap will be able to attract seven million international and 11 million domestic tourists by 2035, which is expected to generate a whopping 5 billion US dollars in revenues and create 900, 000 jobs spanning all related industries. We parted ways that late evening with Wasty, and as we watched the sunset while in our Tuk Tuks driving back to the city, we pondered on this experience and how it has given us a better sense of gratitude for all the blessings in our lives. They don’t call it the magic hour for no reason. Our trip to Angkor Wat has been spiritually transcendent, made better and more humane with Wasty as our guide.